Touhou 13½: Hopeless Masquerade

Ten Desires had anything but the desired effect on Touhou’s legacy, and a fast fix was needed to repair some of the ills it had provided. ZUN didn’t give us one. Instead, it was over a year before any announcement on another game came through. And, having seemingly found his penchant for side games between UFO and TD, the next game announced was…another side game. This time though, it was another fighter, which at least promised much. Twilight Frontier were back and its new game, Hopeless Masquerade, was announced in October 2012, to be released at Comiket 83 two months later.

One month prior to that, a trailer for it announced that the Comiket 83 release would be nothing more than a demo. Not a strong start. And it would be some time before it would be brought out in full. In fact, another trial was brought out in April 2013, before the game was finally released, one year and nine months after the last instalment, at Reitaisai 10.

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Touhou had taken some big risks for Ten Desires, and Twilight Frontier carried that on with HM by changing up its fighting platform: now, the battles were all aerial. While the attacking and spell, skill and item cards were much the same as before, they now relied noticeably more on combos of buttons, with variants of skills appearing depending on how you mapped them. Each skill, spell and item added points to the character’s faiths, which was any one of Shinto, Taoism and Buddhism. Getting one up to four points would give bonuses to the character’s bullets: Shinto gave more range, Taoism more speed and Buddhism close combat boosts.

But the biggest shake-up was the popularity system, and the timer on battles. Now, each battle was timed, 99 seconds per round, and if neither fighter was knocked out by the end, the more popular fighter won the round. The popularity meter at the corner of the screen changed depending on the attacks and spells you used, and by getting hit. Getting to 100% allowed the use of a character’s Last Word. Meanwhile, the stun meters from SWR and Soku remained here, and each character packed their own unique mechanic, represented by an icon next to their stun meter.

Speaking of the characters, there weren’t many to speak of, certainly not by modern Touhou standards. And the roster we were given just seemed to give prominence to how out-of-hand the religious plot of Gensokyo had got. Apart from Reimu and Marisa, nobody from before MoF is playable in this game, and even then it’s just Nitori. Even SA only gets Koishi as a representative, whilst UFO gets Ichirin and Byakuren and TD gets Futo, Miko and Mamizou. Hata no Kokoro was the game’s obligatory new character, but this roster really goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. Reimu and Marisa are obviously excellent, and so too are Byakuren and Koishi, but Nitori and Ichirin seemed pretty bad choices. And again, like I said, it’s not like there weren’t a bunch of other characters ZUN was free to choose. Maybe if Twilight Frontier weren’t quite so keen on reinventing the wheel there’d have been a bit more to behold. Instead, the overwhelming majority of the series’ characters were relegated to the background of each stage. A great shame.

And it’s not like Twilight Frontier had gotten it right in the first place – but I’ll get to that very shortly. In theory, though, the gameplay all seemed fine. Executed right it would probably go down as well as the three grounded fighters before, in spite of a worrying lack of depth in terms of characters. Still, they’d had a good deal of time to get it right, so you’d think the result would be impressive.

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This start music isn’t all that bad, although the character select music replaces it just about instantly. Which is alright too, I guess.

Before beginning on the gameplay, if you ever play HM, you might notice the version number right at the top, and you’ll think “1.34? What?!” This is because the game has needed many an update throughout its time, and for good reason. This is because it wasn’t released very well by Twilight Frontier.

Mostly, the updates came from a constant need to fix the crashes the game suffered from far too often. So even after a long delay the game wasn’t particularly well built. But they weren’t the most immediate problems. Rather, the most prominent issue was that Kokoro was unusable outside of Story Mode, because her moveset was also incomplete. As in, she had no spell cards or specials. Yes, really. Amazingly, this would not be fixed until v1.20, where she also got one extra special and spell than everyone else. That version also added notifications about big rises and falls in popularity, and added the popularity max themes and the character select theme (the title theme just kept playing before). To compensate for Kokoro’s bonus, v1.30 gave everyone else an extra special and spell, too. But a version number as high as .34, I think, says it all. No game has a right to end on a number like that. Trust me, I know. I’ve played Gran Turismo 5.

So Twilight Frontier took a while to actually finish their game after it had actually been released following an actual delay. That’s already a shocking start for this game. But when you take a look at the finished article itself…it’s still not even close to good.

The flying is nowhere near as free as it might seem, and the fighting is awfully jerky. The popularity system penalises you far too heavily for certain styles of play, and 99 seconds never seems quite long enough to knock someone out properly, meaning you can be well and truly on top in the actual fight and yet still ‘lose’ easily. Judges’ decisions are not fine like this. I mean, you should be allowed to defend as nicely as you damn well please. Otherwise you just end up with an RPG where each fighter takes it in turns to pick up hits. (Or a modern day NBA All-Star Game, for that matter.) Frankly, you might as well move the auto-shield button (that’d be C), and A and B buttons, as far away as possible, to avoid defending more than you need to.

Still, there is at least one character capable of fighting out the popularity nonsense. Miko is the best in that regard, being able to charge her popularity up and get more of it with her attacks than most as a result. Luckily, she also happens to be pretty good as an actual fighter. So she is comfortably my favourite fighter in this game.

There are at least nice turns in the action when it’s properly going, but that’s as you’d expect in a fighting game. At least there’s something there, but, while the game encourages you to go balls to the wall, like you did in SWR and Soku, the controls, and how they’re linked to the mechanics, don’t cater very well to it. My chief gripe is not being able to attack properly out of your shield – you have to actually press to deactivate it again, which is just annoying really and only serves to make it all even jerkier.

So in the end, it’s actually not the most spectacular fighting in the world. Sometimes though, that’s fine, for the most part. Not every fighting game is 100mph, even if it’s more attractive to have them that way. But it tends to be the little things make a complex fighting game, like this one, great. This fails on so, so many counts in that regard.

The first thing you’re gonna notice wrong with this game is the art. Realistically, this shouldn’t be so bad, because it’s the same artist as the last three fighters, Alphes. But for reasons known only to the artist, each character has huge eyelashes. This is honestly such a prominent factor it kills the art, no matter how good the rest of it might be. Aside from that it’d be alright, but seriously. Everyone has massive fucking eyelashes in the art for no reason at all. What the hell happened here? And while we’re at it, Twilight Frontier should have had a word with whoever was drawing and animating the in-fight models as well. Some of it is awfully questionable. In fanart, some degree of fanservice is fine – after all, it is fanart. But it is very un-Touhoulike in canon terms. Byakuren’s boobs should not be jiggling like she’s in Dead or Alive when she’s idle, no matter what the fans think. This is canon, you’ve gotta stay subtle. Mamizou gets this treatment as well. Frankly, bad marks all round here.

The music isn’t exactly sparkling either. The way they’ve done the music is the same as what the previous three fighting games got, in that U2 Akiyama remixes tracks that already exist, whilst ZUN makes his own tracks for new, important stuff. Problem is, most of the remixes are mostly unremarkable. And ZUN only made two of his own tracks for this game, one of which was an arrange of another and the second of which is Kokoro’s theme, The Lost Emotion, which isn’t particularly notable either. The only truly great song in the game is Hartmann’s Youkai Girl, and that had the advantage of being one of the best songs in all Touhou to start with.

Lastly, a very personal qualm. I had to turn the settings right down to get the game to run well on my (admittedly shit) laptop. And even then the lowest resolution didn’t fit properly, because I was playing it windowed. I can’t be having full-screen stuff for the most part. When I’m playing a game, I wanna be able to do other shit as well. But when the game’s windowed, the native resolution means the bottom disappears behind the taskbar. This is all just personal stuff, of course.

Still…at least the newspaper stuff at the end of battles is nice, I guess?

In case you couldn’t tell from all of this, on the whole, Hopeless Masquerade lives up to its name – it’s pretty much hopeless. It needed too many updates to get it fully finished, the fighting is no good, the roster is no good, the plot is no good, there’s only one good song in it and the decisions taken with the art are just flat-out awful. This didn’t fix anything Ten Desires damaged. It just amplified it, for the most part. And, may I remind you, it took over one and a half years for it to come out after TD. And even longer than that for it to be finished properly.

The best things I can say about HM are two things that have happened since it came out, which aren’t exactly positives on its side. Firstly, new fighting games have/are to consign HM completely to history, much as IaMP is nothing more than a footnote now in Touhou history. Secondly, the religious nonsense seemed to be driven home to such a breaking point that, since this shitshow, it has pretty much gone away. So I suppose that’s a macabre positive about HM. In bringing Touhou’s games to their lowest, it ultimately proved what was needed to bring them back up again.

I’m sorry, though. No. This is a game that is just wrong on too many levels. So much so I’m glad it’s out of the way now. It’s the last bad thing I have to touch on for a while now. Bad enough that it took me this long to write about it. If anyone asks you about HM, just tell people about what’s come ever since it came about.

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